From Brokenness To Beauty: turning scars into works of art

Cindy Johnson’s work as a boudoir photographer is remarkable in and of itself, but it’s the “naked souls” she captures that truly make her art stand out. After hearing her clients time and time again request that she photoshop out their scars, Johnson wanted to do something to change that perspective.

That’s how The Scar Project was born.

Inspired by the Japanese art of kintsugi, in which the artist fuses a broken piece of pottery with gold in order to repair it, Johnson’s volunteers of all ages applied gold paint to their own (and their loved ones) places of brokenness: their scars. Johnson then used her skills as a photographer to create some truly stunning imagery. The photos are not only mesmerizingly beautiful, but they make a statement and serve as a deeply powerful reminder that every step of our journey, scars included, forms us into who we are today. HER took some time to discuss the project with Johnson – from what being ‘photogenic’ really means, to how we see our own scars, and even how to create your own kintsugi photoshoot.

1. What materials did you use to paint on the gold? Is there a way others who can’t make it to your studio could recreate this?

I looked at a few materials to use for the gold as the scar. Originally I wanted to use real gold leaf, but in researching it I found that it is fragile and somewhat tedious to apply well. I looked at paints with gold in them, but was worried about harshness on the skin. I knew I would be photographing kids and wanted something quick, easy, and gentle. I didn’t want anything about this experience to be negative. I found a metallic paint by the company Plaid, Folk Art Brand, it was less than $2 at the craft store, a water-based non-toxic acrylic. It dried quickly and stayed on until washed off with soap and water. Several of the participants told me they were proud to wear their gold all day after their shoot. Other photographers are welcome to use this idea; I am happy I don’t have a copyright on making people feel great about themselves. I also encourage everyone to do their own scar shoot! Find a window with soft light — an overcast day is great, so that the light highlights the gold paint without creating harsh shadows. No fancy camera needed; in fact, your phone camera is fine! There are some apps that let you take photos at intervals. I think one is called “Camera!” Set it up to take photos every 5 seconds, sit in front of the window, and move around a bit to get different angles. There’s a video tutorial on my page about it!

2. In your video on Facebook you mentioned that your clients often think their scars look smaller in your photos than they expect. It seems like people can often have a distorted view of themselves; can you tell us more about the value of photography in helping develop positive body image, and how you’ve seen that in this project?

We are all our harshest critics, always. Especially as women, which is ironic because I think we are always the best at seeing the beauty in each other. We need to learn to see ourselves as we see others, with compassion, overlooking—or even celebrating—flaws. How do you talk to your daughter about her appearance? You are someone’s daughter too. You deserve that same grace. My main goal with my photography is show people how they look to their loved ones. The camera takes away the critical eye we look at ourselves with, and helps us to see ourselves as others see us.

3. In that same video you said, “All of us are photogenic.” I love this idea. It’s so true and so beautiful. Based on your experience, could you expand on this? Defend this idea to the woman who might say, “No, I’m really not!”

To me, when someone says they aren’t photogenic, it means they aren’t comfortable in front of the camera—or they’ve been put in photo situations that were uncomfortable. That’s why I try to do a lot of talking to people during their sessions, catching their natural expressions, all those little movements that are unique to them. You might not be “photogenic” sitting staring into the camera with a forced smile, but when I ask you to tell me about the person you love, and you look down with a shy smile while pushing your hair behind your ear? That’s you, that’s real, and that’s sure as hell photogenic.  

4. I love this quote from the video: “My goal is to see naked souls.” Being vulnerable on a soul-level is so healthy and beautiful! I love that your project encourages this. From your experience, how can people practice being open with their naked soul in everyday life? Have you noticed anything that helps your clients?

The easiest way, in my job, to get to naked souls is to get them naked, or mostly naked, physically. Everyone is nervous to get naked in front of a stranger and have them take your photo! By shaking people out of their comfort zone, I find that the facade we all put up falls. By the end of the shoot I’ve often had women walking around the studio. Casually, look at me and say, “I forgot I’m naked, I’m so comfortable!” I’m a strong believer in showing people your soul. When you show your soul, in life, in business, in personal interactions, there are some who are going to be freaked out by it, who prefer to interact with others on a superficial level. You might lose some business, you might even lose some friends. They might feel threatened because they are so entrenched behind their wall.  But I truly believe the genuine connections you make through being authentic are so much more important than those you lose. When I stayed superficial on my business page, just showed pretty photos, kept everything very middle of the road, there were people who liked me.  When I started showing more of my soul with my photos, more of the souls of the people I photograph, admitted when I felt sad or lost or afraid, I noticed a shift. Some people left. But the people who stayed? They love me.

5. In the video you said, “Every single one of us is scarred in some way…it’s kind of cool that life leaves marks on us.” If you’re comfortable sharing, what marks has life left on you? Any that might have led you to be interested in this project?

Physically, life has definitely left a mark on me!  I have a scar from stitches on my forehead when I fell  in the back of our family’s station wagon as a child – before seat belts and child car seats were universal. I’m glad I have that scar; it’s not a memory I remember, but my body does. A scar on the back of my heel from the first time I shaved my legs—ouch! I’ve had several surgeries that have also left their mark: gallbladder out, stomach surgery, hysterectomy; my abdomen is a constellation of marks from laparoscopy.  I have stretch marks and wrinkles marking the passage of time. Sometimes I wish emotional pain left a mark on the body; something I could look at and tell the pain, “you’re there, you’ll never be completely gone, but I can sit with you and not have you overwhelm me now.” A place that I could ice or heat when the pain flares. I actually have a tattoo that is a reminder of a painful emotional situation I endured, it is in a way a scar of that injury.

6. Do you have any future plans for this project?

For now, this project is complete. Nobody paid for these shoots, it was a chance to let my heart soar a bit in my work, while also helping others.  I love to be able to use my job to help.  At every session I do in my everyday boudoir photography job, I celebrate bodies, I celebrate “flaws,” and I’d always be willing to pull out the gold paint again for any shoot.

7. Do you have any other upcoming projects we should keep our eyes open for?

It is my goal to do personal projects a couple of times a year, to keep my heart in what I do, to continue to push myself out of my own comfort zone. I don’t know what the next one will be. I’m not a planner; usually when I come up with an idea I have to make it happen immediately or it never does! Here’s the last personal project I did, celebrating body positivity, and also celebrating the fact that we can lean on each other to help us overcome years of negative self-talk.

Make sure you take a look at The Scar Project on Johnson’s Facebook page, and be inspired. Our scars, our stumbles, our scratches along the way have all made us who we are.

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